Fourteen years ago, by the mercy of God, I repented of my sin and believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ in my hometown of Dothan, Alabama. Two months later, I was used by God to lead two men to Christ at the Dothan Rescue Mission. These men began attending my church and even joined the choir. What should have been a cause for church-wide celebration in my home church became an opportunity for racism and bigotry to rear its serpentine head once again. You see, those two men were black, and there were several white members of the congregation who voiced anger over two new brothers in Christ leading them in worship on Sunday mornings on account of their skin cells containing a higher amount of melanin. Racism is still alive in our churches.
On Thursday morning, I travelled with a group of friends and brothers in Christ to the ERLC Leadership Summit on the topic of “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation.” Dr. Russell Moore and his staff decided on this topic at the last minute in light of increased racial tensions over tragedies involving the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and others.
Below I offer a few brief takeaways from the conference:
To a person, every single speaker at the ERLC Leadership Summit declared that racism is a gospel issue. Russell Moore, in the opening address, clarified that God has called the church to be the living representation of the kingdom of God on earth. That kingdom is made up of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Citing Eph. 3:10, Moore pointed out that Satan trembles when he sees diverse people gather who have nothing in common but Christ. Likewise, Thabiti Anyabwile closed the Summit by showing that, from the very beginning, God has intended to image himself in the diversity of his people. It was encouraging to hear diverse speakers agreeing that this issue of racism is a gospel issue. Diversity in our churches is not just a preference. Because Christ died to reconcile all peoples, diversity is a necessary mandate.
Anyabwile said it best when he said, “If racism doesn’t exist it would be the first sin in the history of the world to disappear apart from the gospel.” Over and over, I heard stories from my black brothers about being unjustly targeted and discriminated against. Just as we must confess our sins before we can be reconciled to God in Christ, we must be honest about the sin of racism in our hearts before we can be reconciled to our brothers and sisters of different ethnicities.
We are different from one another, and those God-given outer distinctions must not be ignored. Instead, we need to celebrate them. Tony Evans wisely called us to be who God has made us to be in all of its uniqueness. However, this point must be extended beyond skin color to an appreciation and celebration of diverse cultures. If we are going to have diverse churches, we need to be willing to be stretched on preferential issues of music styles and worship habits. As David Prince has reminded our church for years, “You do not really learn to worship God until you learn to die to yourself by laying aside your own preferences for the sake of the preferences of those around you.”
My whiteness may forever prohibit me from shouting and talking back to the preacher like some of my black brothers and sisters were, but my worship was enriched by their example. For two days, we lifted high the name of Christ with one voice and one purpose. And that’s when I realized: this is the way it’s supposed to be! This is the way it will be for all eternity: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10)!
It’s great to be able to gather for two days and celebrate the gospel in diverse company. However, it’s not enough. My prayer is that this Summit will spark a movement in our churches toward racial reconciliation and gospel diversity. Will you join the movement?
In the car ride on the way to the Leadership Summit, I had the opportunity to share with my friend Kenneth Johnson, a black brother who attends a different church in my town, about my terrible racist past. I shared with him that the “n” word was a common occurrence among my white family members and friends growing up, both Christians and non-Christians. I told him about my friends and me attempting to join the KKK in the 8th grade, even going as far as writing letters to the leader of the Satanic organization. I shared with him the story of a racial fight breaking out in the gym of that same 8th grade year between my white friends and our black classmates over one of my friends shouting a racial slur at a young black woman. It’s a sad history, and I’m not proud of it. But I wanted him to know.
Ken was obviously surprised by these revelations. He knew that I was a pastor and the proud father of two black children, Elias and Eden, who my wife and I adopted from Uganda in 2010. He knew that I had invited him to go to this Leadership Summit with me and that we had already had conversations about how to make our respective congregations more diverse. What I was telling him about my past just didn’t make sense to him, and I started to grow in concern as I anticipated his reaction. But Ken didn’t get mad at me. Instead, he looked at me and said these remarkable words, “Wow, brother, the gospel is powerful.” That’s right, brother, it is. It’s powerful enough to change my racist heart, and it’s powerful enough to bring true gospel diversity to our churches.